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Microplastics, also known as plastic microbeads, are small, often microscopic particles of plastic which make their way into our environment regularly via cosmetic products and generally when larger plastics are broken down into smaller pieces.
Despite not being broadly documented scientifically, it is accepted that Microplastics can cause significant harm to marine life and humans indirectly through the consumption of affected fish. Scientists who participated in the 1st International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris, held at the University of Washington, agreed in 2008 that ingestion, slow degradation and high volumes of Microplastics pose serious problems to marine life.
Galgani et al. (2010) discussed harm to marine life and defined the word “Harm” using three specific categories:
- Ecological – this refers to death or severe effects caused (to organisms) by objects introduced to water systems and includes the consumption of particles (predominantly microplastics) and also the addition of chemicals and other substances which alter the eco-system of the environment.
- Economic – tourism costs, damage to transportation, fishing equipment and buildings, reduction in fishing opportunities.
- Social – aesthetics of the area and safety to the general public.
Little is known of the effects of the ingestion of Microplastics at the primary level and whether or not they can be transferred across trophic levels. It is however accepted that Microplastics can block or damage digestive tracts of aquatic life, can cause chemical leaching during digestion and chemicals may be ingested/accumulated into organisms.
The main concern is that Microplastics could well be an instrument in transferring persistent organic pollutants (POPs) from the environment into organisms that interact with them, however this is yet to be confirmed.
If this was the case though, then Microplastics could potentially enter into the food network and thus eventually make their way into humans causing various unconfirmed effects to our health.
Furthermore, due to additives that are introduced during the manufacture of plastics, harmful chemicals could leach out into organisms during digestion which could cause serious health issues including various cancers, changes in genetic material and endocrine disruption which, in humans, can cause reproductive problems.
The Growing Problem of Microplastics - Video sourced from: John Sabella YouTube
Removing Microplastics from the marine environment seems like a virtually impossible task due to their size and the fact that they are already so widespread across the world. The rate at which Microplastics are introduced to the marine environment is also far higher than the rate of removal. But there are some large organisations which are working towards the goal of creating a safe environment for marine life.
A major manufacturer of cosmetics, Unilever, has identified the potential effects that Microplastics may have on marine, and consequently human, life. Unilever currently use Microplastics in some of their products, including exfoliating facial and body washes. This is due to the fact that whilst massaging the product into the face, the beads remove dead skin cells leaving skin feeling clean and refreshed.
Unilever have taken a massive step forward in reducing the volume of Microplastics entering into our eco-system by declaring that by 1 January 2015, they expect to complete a global phasing out of the use of Microplastics in their products entirely. To achieve this, they are currently researching ways in which they can provide the same customer experience that the beads provide without using Microplastics.
In Australia, and around the world, Unilever is in the process of phasing Microplastics out of our personal care products.
We have been exploring suitable alternatives that will deliver the same performance. We will begin the next stage of the phase out in January and expect to be completed by 2015.
Unilever speaking to The Sun-Herald
Seas At Risk, a network of 23 member organisations in 13 countries, educate, publicise and lobby national and international organisations to try and protect and restore the marine environment. In June 2013, their Dutch member, the North Sea Foundation, lobbied the government in the Netherlands to put pressure on the EU to invoke a European-wide ban on the use of Microplastics in consumer products. They hope that this encourages Member States to support the ban.
The organisation were also a key voice in the legislative process to creating the Marine Strategy Framework Directive in 2007. This is a European directive which specifically aims to protect marine life and their environment with the ultimate goal of achieving a “Good Environmental Status” for all waters in Europe by 2020.
Professor R.C. Thompson of Plymouth University, UK, who first coined the term “Microplastics” in 2004, states that there are many unanswered questions regarding the quantity of debris which is settling on the seafloor. He said that efforts must be made to at least divert the Microplastic stream from our water system elsewhere as, despite unknown effects to human health, the amount of accumulated Microplastics in the marine environment is already a significant problem.
In a message to Senator John Kerry in June 2014, Professor R.C. Thompson mentioned that plastic waste must be viewed as valuable, and captured for re-use. This would immediately reduce the quantity of Microplastics entering the marine environment.
It would seem that the future for the world’s marine life is rather grim considering the ever increasing quantity of Microplastics which are being introduced to oceans worldwide. But thanks to pioneering organisations such as Seas At Risk, battling for legislation to improve the quality of marine environments, and global consumer brands like Unilever, actively reducing their use of Microplastics in consumer products, the problem could well improve in the near future.
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